Iowa court upholds dentist's firing of female assistant

2013 04 24 10 24 57 233 Justic Scale 200

The Iowa Supreme Court today reaffirmed its ruling that a dentist acted legally when he fired his female dental assistant because he found her too attractive and was worried her presence in his practice was a threat to his marriage.

The court upheld its December 2012 decision, when the all-male court found that bosses can fire employees they see as threats to their marriages even if the employees have not engaged in flirtatious or other inappropriate behavior.

James H. Knight, DDS, of Fort Dodge hired 20-year-old dental assistant Melissa Nelson in 1999, shortly after she graduated from community college. Nelson worked for Dr. Knight for more than 10 years.

On several occasions during the last year and a half when Nelson was in the office, Dr. Knight complained to Nelson that her clothing was too tight, revealing, and "distracting," according to the court decision.

Dr. Knight acknowledged that he told Nelson that if she saw his "pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing," according to testimony. Nelson put on a lab coat whenever Dr. Knight complained to her about her clothing, according to the decision.

They started exchanging texts about work and personal matters, but both said they were not intimately involved.

Dr. Knight said that after Nelson allegedly made a statement regarding infrequency in her sex life, he responded to her, "[T]hat's like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it," according to court transcripts.

Nelson said that Dr. Knight once texted her to ask how often she experienced an orgasm, she testified.

Finally, Dr. Knight's wife, Jeanne, who also worked in the practice, insisted that her husband terminate Nelson because she was a "big threat" to their marriage.

Dr. Knight then fired her and gave her a "rather ungenerous one month's severance," the court said.

Dr. Knight told Nelson's husband, Steve, that Melissa "had not done anything wrong or inappropriate and that she was the best dental assistant he ever had," according to court documents.

Dr. Knight told Steve Nelson that nothing was going on but that "he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road," the decision stated.

In August 2010, Nelson sued Dr. Knight, alleging that she had been discriminated against because she was a woman.

The district court dismissed the case, saying Nelson was fired not because she was a woman but because she posed a threat to Dr. Knight's marriage, and an appeals court upheld the dismissal.

The Iowa Supreme Court then upheld the two lower court rulings, stating in part, "Ms. Nelson was fired not because of her gender but because she was a threat to the marriage of Dr. Knight. For the reasons stated herein, we ultimately conclude the conduct does not amount to unlawful sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act."

In her court petition for reconsideration, Nelson alleged that she was fired "simply for existing as an attractive female." The dental assistant, who has a young daughter, said she was devastated by the termination, and said it sends a message that men can do whatever they want in the workforce.

"We believe this [Dr. Knight's] conduct did not amount to unlawful discrimination," the court stated in its final ruling.

The ruling came after the state high court took the unusual step last month of withdrawing its December 2012 opinion, which had received nationwide publicity, debate, and criticism.

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